Two years ago, in a course on women writers and activism, I assigned Uncle Tom’s Cabin to my undergrads. Unsurprisingly, the student reviews were mixed: Is Harriet Beecher Stowe's fictional account of chattel slavery in the United States an example of the kind of social justice the humanities can inspire? Or sentimental propaganda with a heavy dose of implicit racism? Indeed, Stowe’s 1852 novel stands at the center of a longstanding argument about whether empathy is a world-changing force for good — or a middle-class justification for feeling instead of doing.
I’ve been thinking about these tensions over the last few weeks as I’ve read articles celebrating the return of empathy to the White House. I share the deep sense of relief, but as a scholar of religion and literature with a particular interest in ethics and empathy, I wonder whether we need to clarify our terms. It will take a clear-sighted analysis of ourselves and our social relations for us to continue the long-haul work toward justice. And if the empathy debate teaches us anything, it’s that for all its power, empathy on its own will not solve our problems.
We often take “empathy” to mean a positively valued caring for another person’s suffering. But this is just one aspect of empathy: At its broadest, empathy can encompass any shared feeling. In her book Empathy and the Novel, Suzanne Keen surveys cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy to conclude that empathy at its most basic is, “I feel what you feel.”
This means that empathy involves sharing not just suffering, but also joy, relief, fear, and rage. Empathy isn’t so much a morally superior practice as it is a basic shared human tendency. We are wired to mirror and feel with others, scientists increasingly believe, in ways that are pre-conscious, automatic, and deeply rooted in our neurobiology. We catch each other’s feelings without realizing it’s happening, a phenomenon some scholars call “emotional contagion.” It happens when we find ourselves echoing a smile or nodding along with a character on television, or in the swell of shared feeling in a sports arena, a concert hall, a church.
According to neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, this creaturely aspect of ours may undergird our very capacity for relationship and ethics. But it is also risky. We can just as easily catch each other’s rage and fear as we can share joy or sorrow. This shared feeling fuels vitriolic online message boards and violent insurrections as surely as it has fueled lynch mobs. As Iacoboni notes, it sways how we vote in ways that often escape our conscious thought. And these shared feelings of fear and in-group preference likely shape the very structures of our institutions. Our extraordinary human capacity to feel with each other can just as easily underwrite evil as it does good.
I don’t think this is what we mean when we celebrate empathy returning to Washington.
Even in progressive spaces, our inborn capacity to empathize is bent by the prejudiced narratives we grow up in and around. Brain studies show, for example, that white test subjects in North America have less brain mirroring activity when they see a person of color pick up a glass of water than when they see another white person pick up a glass. And research on cross-racial pain perception has led researchers to conclude that context modulates our automatic, pre-conscious empathizing.
To put it simply: White supremacy changes the very structures of our brains. The stories we grow up with, the histories we are taught in schools, the memes we share, the news we take in — these all forge our neural pathways. When it comes to our shared life shaped by social (and traditional) media and longstanding debates over state and national curricula, the stakes are perhaps even higher than we have imagined. We are born wired to feel with the widest array of others, but as we learn to perceive some people as other, our inborn capacities atrophy, and this change to our brains never feels anything other than “natural.” It’s like a speck in our eye, or perhaps a beam.
There’s good news, though. After many years of believing the brain was “set” in childhood and adolescence, researchers increasingly claim that adults’ brains are “plastic”— they can change. The deep grooves of our prejudices, forged in heteropatriarchal and misogynistic white supremacy, are not inevitable. We can raise our children with counternarratives, yes, but we can also steep ourselves in better stories. We can rewire our adult brains: They are not beyond redemption.
As a literature professor, I find great joy in welcoming my students into new and better stories — stories of others’ pain, yes, but also of their resilience, their resistance, their creativity, their joy. In a course I teach on biography and memoir, we read not just Augustine and Margery Kempe, but also Ross Gay’s poetry of rage and delight. In other courses on American literature and decolonial literature we read Toni Morrison’s inimitable Beloved and her provocative Nobel Lecture, in which she reminded us that language is powerful and communal. We read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Adrienne Rich and Gloria Anzaldúa, Ana Castillo, and Katherena Vermette. In Intro to Feminist Theory, we talk about the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people, and then we read Rosanna Deerchild’s extraordinary poem “we are just,” with its “voice / rising” to refuse stereotypes and erasure and its unforgettable final lines: “my name is / not missing.”
I invite my students to hold space for these paradoxes, to bear witness to both the suffering and the celebration. These stories have the double effect of allowing Indigenous, Black, brown, women, and queer students to see themselves in the curriculum, in all their beautiful complexity, while also expanding white, settler, straight, and male students’ sense of the rich variety of shared humanity.
This isn’t just about a happy multiculturalism. Steeping ourselves in other peoples’ stories, particularly stories that demonstrate the complex and full humanity of people who have been vulnerable to prejudice and injustice, literally rewires our brains, and literature can play an important part. The research shows that this kind of “top-down” exercise, where we purposefully engage in imagining other lives and experiences, can re-develop the lower-level empathic capacity to automatically share feelings with others whom our prejudice formerly blocked. And this shared feeling can be (although it is not inevitably) a foundation for relationship and partnership in the struggle toward equitable flourishing.
When Paul calls on Christians to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, and when Jesus commands us to love our neighbors and our enemies, they are calling us not to impossible obedience but to a capacity we are created with. This capacity to empathize may be bent by white supremacy, but it is not broken, and the immensely good news is that empowered by the Spirit and spurred on by community, we can redeem our very neural structures. Jesus’s own practice of teaching through stories and parables hints at one strategy that can help us in this project of redemption.
Empathy itself may not be the final answer, but it is part of who we are as humans, a part that can spur on harm or engender extraordinary good. This is good news for those of us who are seeking to shift our deeply internalized biases. It is also good news for those who have been radicalized by hatred and fear. In other words, a more robust understanding of empathy is good news for a country divided. Neither the structures of this world nor the structures of our brains are past changing.